MONTPELIER — In a 20-10 vote, lawmakers voted to suspend state Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, who is accused of sexually assaulting two women.
The Vermont Senate voted to suspend McAllister on Wednesday, Jan. 6.
The chamber was split on the decision with 20 voting for and 10 against the resolution suspending the Republican from Franklin County.
It is the first time in history that the Senate has ousted one of its own. The suspension effectively means that Franklin County constituents will not be fully represented for the remainder of the 2016 legislative session.
McAllister has been accused of sexually assaulting two women and has pleaded not guilty. One of the alleged victims was an intern who worked at the Statehouse. McAllister was arrested on the next to the last day of the 2015 legislative session in May and was stripped of his committee assignments. The Franklin County State's Attorney is prosecuting the case, and it is expected to go to trial in March.
In a Republican caucus on Tuesday he maintained he had done nothing wrong. The Franklin County Republican vowed to fight the suspension and worked hard to persuade his colleagues that a vote to suspend him would make it difficult for him to get a fair jury trial.
McAllister fought the suspension to the end. He told his colleagues the allegations that had been brought against him were false and would be disproved in a court of law.
"It would have been much easier had I resigned way back in the beginning, but I felt that I was not guilty of anything, and the only one who knows I'm not guilty is me. Others may prejudge me for what they read or saw but that's not always fact.
"I do not feel I should be ostracized for something I am not guilty of," McAllister said.
But his attempts to persuade his colleagues fell on deaf ears. A substitute amendment that would have blocked suspension failed 10-20.
State Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, the majority leader of the Senate led the discussion on the floor of the Senate. He explained that the resolution removes McAllister's powers of office until the charges against him have been dismissed. He cannot vote, take his seat in the Senate chamber or participate in committees. Under Senate rules, however, he will continue to receive legislative pay.
The suspension is temporary and would be lifted if the charges against the senator are dismissed. In that instance, McAllister would automatically return to the Senate.
On Wednesday afternoon, as McAllister calmly took his seat on the Senate floor, photographers rushed in to get his photo. Meanwhile, constituents from Franklin County, many of them women who supported McAllister's ouster, filled the galleries of the chamber.
In a solemn nearly two-hour debate, senators faced what several described as the most difficult issue they have faced in their careers in the Legislature.
Baruth told his colleagues that the situation they faced was "ugly."
"I have no doubt when we finish no one will feel good about what we do here today," Baruth said, "As we are voting to suspend one of our own. It's hard to imagine a more uncomfortable discussion, and yet today's debate is crucial for the future of the Senate."
Baruth urged senators to be frank during the debate even though McAllister was present among them and then he proceeded to briefly describe the criminal charges McAllister faces.
"If it's tough to hear, that says a great deal about why those charges and this chamber do not mix," Baruth said. "They are extremely serious and carry with them the possibility of life in prison."
Baruth then recounted that McAllister was charged with multiple felony counts and a range of "sexual activities."
The Senate Rules Committee could have chosen to censure or expel McAllister, but instead the committee chose an untried middle way — suspension. Expulsion, the committee members believed, would have involved full hearings and could have negatively impacted the ongoing criminal case, Baruth said.
By suspending McAllister, Baruth said the senators sought to protect both McAllister's constitutional right to a fair trial and the people who serve at the will of the Senate — pages, interns, administrative assistants and legislative counsel.
"The feeling of the majority was that the suspension avoided prejudging McAllister," Baruth said. "It was not intended to express a sentiment or render a verdict."